It seems right to meet Simon Montford in a coffee shop so new that is doesn’t appear on Google Maps. We are, after all, discussing the future of, well, everything. Montford runs WEB3//IOT, an IoT consulting business and blog. He also runs the IoT Scotland Meetup, and regularly speaks at conferences about all things internet. And particularly when those things are ‘things’.
“I am an optimist”, declares Montford, “which is more difficult than you think when people are predicting dark days ahead, fuelled by the trend towards mass automation. Read Bruce Sterling’s ‘Epic struggle of the Internet of Things’, and you will see why. Sterling says in his book that Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft are like five kings. Under them, you have lesser-known feudal dukes and earls, such as Intel, Ciscos, IBM, Samsung, AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast. Way under them you have us, the customer. Sterling suggests that we are nothing more than cattle and crops, and our data is being milked and harvested by tech nobility for the benefit of the five kings.
people are predicting dark days ahead, fuelled by the trend towards mass automation
As openings for a discussion about the Internet of Things (IoT) goes, this was certainly different. To Montford, however, the internet of things simply means a world where ‘things’ do most of the work, yet interact with us as well.
The conversation is far reaching and occasionally borders on the science fiction. At times, we can almost feel Orwell, Clarke, even Schwarzenegger leaning in to listen.
“Automation will be everywhere, and soon. It will change many, many accepted norms”, says Montford. “Consider the concept of dark factories. Robots do not need light to operate, so why waste money on lighting when you don’t have to? You would only have to turn a light on if a human needs to intervene”.
Montford first started making a living off the internet eons ago – in digital time. He founded his first internet company in 1995, after discussing the internet with someone who later became his business partner, over dinner. “That evening I realised it was something that wasn’t just for academics and geeks. It had huge commercial potential”. Today he is no less enthusiastic. The IoT, Montford explains, is where products, people, and connectivity come together. He originally planned to become a Product Designer instead of an Internet Entrepreneur, but it suddenly dawned on him around five years ago that the IoT had become something of an obsession. “It’s exactly what I have been waiting for, because I’ve always wanted to combine my passion for product design and connected technology!”
Back in the late 90’s, Montford’s startup became the ‘go to’ company for the very first, ‘shop window’ websites in the UK, and Ministry of Defence, London Transport, Ferrari and even Saatchi & Saatchi were among his company’s list of clients. It was early days, to the point that he and his colleagues would often answer the phone to people asking, ‘is that The Internet’? He also founded the very first Internet auction company iCollector, that went live well before eBay.
Not surprisingly, the conversation turns to the subject of data.
“The saying ‘if you are not paying for the product, you are the product’ is trite but true”, says Montford. “And yet we cannot ask big corporates to keep us safe, to stop our data being shared and our likes and dislikes being exploited. It is not their job, not their motivation and not in their shareholders’ interest. At the moment, we are in the middle of a data land grab. Facebook and the like are racing to lock us in before an alternative arrives that treats our data how we would like it to be treated. And when an alternative arrives, we will migrate. Remember how quickly MySpace sank, and how quickly Facebook rose as a result”.
we cannot ask big corporates to keep us safe, to stop our data being shared and our likes and dislikes being exploited. It is not their job
“Having said that, there is no doubt that data is extremely powerful and can be used for extreme good. I heard the other day that a big hospital was sending huge amounts of patient data to Deep Mind, Google’s big analytics machine. The diagnoses and resource savings by doing that kind of analysis is awesome. As long as the permissions are in place”.
Artificial intelligence is at the heart of the IoT, according to Montford. At some point soon – and no-one knows when, we will reach ‘singularity’ – the moment when machines know what to do better than humans. “Some say, Elon Musk amongst them, that to truly belong to the next age we need to merge with machines, simply to keep up with the potential that is in front of us”. Again, you could feel several science fiction gurus of the late 1900s leaning in to listen.
“The good news is that the University of Edinburgh School of Informatics is a great AI research hub. It is certainly number one in the UK, and in the top five worldwide. Montford says he is constantly inspired by being located within such a world-class centre of excellence. He is certain that AI will mean success for a range of innovations currently in the hype cycle, including the IoT. He explains that the reason why the web is about to transform into what he calls “Web 3.0” is down to two primary factors; AI and 5G. This is because connected things, like driverless cars for example, require ultra-fast, zero-latency connectivity to operate autonomously. The combination of machine intelligence and 5G will, therefore, finally make the Machine Web a reality. The power of AI is already being demonstrated. The guy who was beaten at ‘Go’ said it ‘was beautiful’ to watch. The poker players who were beaten by Libratus said that ‘it was as if it could see my cards’”.
Montford, unlike many others in the industry, has answers – or at least ideas – to address the downside of mass automation. With the potential of 30% of the workforce being out of a job, it is no small issue. “To an extent I buy into the idea of the Universal Basic Income. If you consider the additional taxable income that could potentially be generated from corporates as a result of efficiencies produced by automation. Then you also consider the cost savings resulting from scrapping outdated and unworkable pension schemes, as well as the savings from shuttering gov departments that currently administer the welfare system – it starts to look feasible. This will actually enable people to go and ‘be creative’ – the current catch all ‘answer’ to what people will do once they are out of a job”.
Montford also believes that there will be a radical redistribution of value. “If you take jobs that can be automated, you can see that jobs that are valuable today will not be tomorrow. Software engineers, lawyers, accountants, analysts, all their skills can be automated and made more efficient and cost effective. People skills, on the other hand – carers, therapists, even comedians will have the potential to become incredibly valuable. These are skills that are beyond automation”.
Montford is keen to promote the possibilities of automation, AI, the IoT or whatever we care to call the future. “Imagine the container ship that has fresh vegetables and is delivering them to the other side of the world. Monitors will constantly report temperature, time when each way point is reached, motion, you name it. And if the ship arrives and the vegetables are ruined, there is an immutable record – think blockchain for this – of where and when the vegetables were ruined, when the temperature rose or fell or changed beyond the parameters. And this can be checked against a smart contract, compensation can be triggered immediately – no lawyers involved – and the world moves on. Exciting times”.
It turns out that Simon Montford is indeed, an optimist and more than ready – via his Scottish IoT Meet Ups – to ride the IoT whirlwind.
All that we need to figure out, it seems, is just how many comedians the world has room for